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Letters and Commentary – a Conversation with April Chapman-Ludwig

Note: This interview is one of a series with faculty at the University of Denver about writing and the teaching of writing. Interviewer Joanna Ruocco earned her PhD in fiction from DU. She's the author of four books, including the award-winning Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, although she's published other novels under a pseudonym. Her work has been reviewed widely, including in Triquarterly and The Nation.

April Chapman-Ludwig has been teaching in the DU Writing Program for seven years and, as a result, her own writing practice has shifted. She previously taught at Illinois State University, where she earned her degrees.

Joanna Ruocco: Do you enjoy writing?

April Chapman-Ludwig: I do. I enjoy writing as a form of self-expression, and I journal and occasionally blog. Right now, the writing I do is mostly commenting on student papers. I think of commenting as a type of writing, and I actually really enjoy it as well. I give a half-page to a full page of feedback on each paper, whether it's getting an A or F.

JR: Do you type comments? Write them by hand?

ACL: I do both. I've even tried commenting via tape recorder, but it was harder for me, and I found my voice would go. I'm trying to switch to typing, because it's clearer to students. But I do prefer writing by hand. I feel like it's more personal. I love letter-writing, and I did a lot with letter writing in some of my women's literature classes in graduate school. I actually did my master's thesis on Frankenstein, and Frankenstein is structured as letters. I connect back to that a lot.

JR: Do you think of commenting as a kind of letter writing to the student?

ACL: I do, and a lot of times I'll put "Dear so-and-so" or I'll put the student's name on the top and write. The peer responses I require are a form of letter writing, too. I have students write each other letters

JR: That's interesting. I do that too when I comment. I write "Dear student" and then I write my comments. But I never thought about why the letter form feels right for commenting.

ACL: I think it helps people make personal connections. I try to connect to students and to get them to connect to each other. I think that's so important in the classroom. Letter writing is one way to get there. I also like to bring in examples, from other students or from my own life. I've actually taken snippets of my thesis on Frankenstein and shared them with students to show my own drafting process. I want them to know that I'm not this authority figure in the classroom, someone who hasn't been through what they're going through, whether it's writer's block or a tricky, whatever they're dealing with.

JR: Right! It's not as though we teachers have mastered writing and are now done with it. Writing remains a process for everyone. We're all in writing, working in writing.

ACL: And writing isn't this one, narrow thing. When I first meet people and they hear I teach writing, they tend to think automatically it's grammatical. They say, "Whoa, I gotta watch my grammar around you." And it's really not that at all. Grammar is just this itty, bitty, mini component of it. Writing involves so many different skill sets, whether it's creative writing or nonfiction or argumentation. I have students change up their genres—for example, take a fairy tale and use it as a basis for an editorial piece or a magazine article or re-adapt it for a narrative essay. I had a student who re-adapted the fairy tale "The Gingerbread Man"; he did it from perspective from the gingerbread man writing a letter to his creator saying, "Please don't eat me." It was awesome. I think the most important thing I can do for students is to challenge their preset idea about what writing means. They come to college with ideas about essay writing they learned in high school. They think, "I've gotta have five paragraphs" and "I've gotta have a thesis in my first opening paragraph" and "I've gotta to use x-number of sources." And I just take all of that and say, "Nope. Let's throw it out. We're gonna throw it out. Your writing really depends on audience and context." So when they come out of my class, what I hope they get from it is there are all these different ways that you can be a writer. There are all these different things that you could do.

JR: So you tailor your assignments so students get a chance to write for different audiences and in different genres?

ACL: I try to make assignments dynamic. I want them to be flexible so students can bring in their own interests. I let them pick their own topics within the guidelines, and also pick their audiences and craft their papers accordingly. I have students research and write on an unsolved mystery, and they can run the gamut in terms of audience. They can write letters as researchers to other researchers in the field using technical language or they write letters as Francis Bean Cobain to her mother, Courtney Love, arguing that she took part in Kurt Cobain's murder. They need to think about context and the rhetorical strategies appropriate to that context. Students seem to have a lot of fun writing that assignment, and I have a lot of fun reading their papers. It's great when students get interested in what they're writing; it helps me stay interested in writing about their writing and helps me see the interconnections between my commenting and the other kinds of writing that excite me.